You may have heard something about a writers’ strike going on in Hollywood right now. I recommend the excellent Ken Levine (writer for Cheers and M*A*S*H, among others) as a source of updates. What I wanted to talk about (since my last post, at 11:50 last night, doesn’t count as one posted today) was the difference between a novelist and a screenwriter.
I have made movies myself, and written novels (as I’m sure you’re all tired of being reminded–hey, I don’t have an agent yet, I need to shill for myself). When you’re writing a novel, there’s no question that you’re the most important person in the process. If you’re working with a small press, you may be virtually the only person in the process (my novel got feedback from four editors and trusted associates, but I did the final edits, the proofreading, and the layout for publication). It is a much more rewarding individual achievement.
A movie is such a large enterprise in most cases (indie one-man shows aside) that it requires a team of people with complementary skills. Writing is only one of those skills, and it would be a mistake to say that it is more or less critical than any of the others. You can have a terrific script, but if the acting is bad, or the DP can’t compose a shot to save his life, or the director can’t get the right performance out of her actors, or the sound is muffled or the lighting bad or the editing choppy … you get the idea. What is important about a screenwriter that is unique to the team is that the writer’s script determines the direction of the project.
The harsh truth is that while every word in a novel might be yours, you’ll be lucky to get a screenplay to the screen at all, and if you do, you’ll have actually written maybe half the words that are actually spoken. If you want to be a screenwriter, don’t get too fixated on your character’s bon mot in the kitchen scene. You’ve defined the starting point for the idea, the themes, and the characters. Yes, the producer, director, and everyone down to the key grip will be tweaking parts of your script. There’s a temptation to believe that the writer is less important than those people just because his or her input has come earlier in the process.
Writers’ strikes usually put an end to that kind of belief, at least temporarily. There seems now to be a grudging acknowledgment of the importance of writers in the process, despite the occasional sound-off like Michael Eisner. At the same time, it highlights the difference between screenwriting and novel-writing. Screenwriting is dependent on a lot of other people. You’re part of a big company, even if the pay isn’t regular, and you have someone looking out for your interests. As a novelist, you’re pretty much on your own.
So which model of writing appeals to you more?